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Tom Hodgkinson on Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, Slightly Foxed 82

Up a Creek

Three Men in a Boat was published in 1889, in a distant age from ours. Queen Victoria was on the throne, middle-class people had servants, there was no radio or television, gas lamps lit the streets, hair was piled high in buns, and dresses were extremely flouncy. However some things haven’t changed. Then as now people’s best-laid schemes and visions tended to go seriously awry. And then as now people found amateur banjo players really annoying.

Jerome K. Jerome’s short book, the story of a disaster-filled rowing trip up the Thames, brought back my own memories of various attempts to mess around on the river. The idea is lovely, dreamy, bucolic. But it always ends in disaster. It’s the boats. They look easy to control, but they’re not. As teenagers, some friends and I thought it would be fun to take a boat out on the river at Richmond. We were happily larking about on the water when we heard a deep, loud and terrifying horn. We looked up and saw a gigantic ship bearing down on us. We tried to row out of the way but succeeded only in spinning our boat so it was at right angles to the prow (if that is the right word) of the monstrous vessel. The next thing we knew, bang! We were all in the river, surrounded by oars, seat covers and other bits of flotsam from our smashed-up skiff.

A crowd gathered on the tow path to gaze at us and laugh. We were at Petersham, by the meadows, on that bit of the river painted by Turner but which no longer looks idyllic to me. We swam to the shore and were relieved to be back on solid ground.

Three Men in a Boat opens with a discussion between the narrator J and his two friends, Harris and George, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, a small fox-terrier who, says J, lives ‘at my expense’. They all feel overworked, and ill. ‘“What we want is rest,” said Harris.’ They agree that a leisurely

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Three Men in a Boat was published in 1889, in a distant age from ours. Queen Victoria was on the throne, middle-class people had servants, there was no radio or television, gas lamps lit the streets, hair was piled high in buns, and dresses were extremely flouncy. However some things haven’t changed. Then as now people’s best-laid schemes and visions tended to go seriously awry. And then as now people found amateur banjo players really annoying.

Jerome K. Jerome’s short book, the story of a disaster-filled rowing trip up the Thames, brought back my own memories of various attempts to mess around on the river. The idea is lovely, dreamy, bucolic. But it always ends in disaster. It’s the boats. They look easy to control, but they’re not. As teenagers, some friends and I thought it would be fun to take a boat out on the river at Richmond. We were happily larking about on the water when we heard a deep, loud and terrifying horn. We looked up and saw a gigantic ship bearing down on us. We tried to row out of the way but succeeded only in spinning our boat so it was at right angles to the prow (if that is the right word) of the monstrous vessel. The next thing we knew, bang! We were all in the river, surrounded by oars, seat covers and other bits of flotsam from our smashed-up skiff. A crowd gathered on the tow path to gaze at us and laugh. We were at Petersham, by the meadows, on that bit of the river painted by Turner but which no longer looks idyllic to me. We swam to the shore and were relieved to be back on solid ground. Three Men in a Boat opens with a discussion between the narrator J and his two friends, Harris and George, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, a small fox-terrier who, says J, lives ‘at my expense’. They all feel overworked, and ill. ‘“What we want is rest,” said Harris.’ They agree that a leisurely trip up the Thames will restore mental equilibrium. But as is the way with boats, and holidays, and life in general, what they get is argument, turmoil and disaster. The problems begin with the packing. ‘Packing’, says our narrator, in a cool comment on the male ego, ‘is one of those things that I feel I know more about than any other person living. (It surprises me myself, sometimes, how many of these subjects there are.)’ Montmorency is not much help. ‘He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying pan.’ The dog, Jerome later confessed, was an invention, whereas everything else in the book really happened. Once on the boat, Montmorency has a fight with the kettle. Having seized it by the spout, the dog ‘broke into a blood-curdling yelp . . . and did a constitutional three times round the island at the rate of thirty-five miles an hour’. Near the beginning of the trip, J and Harris pick up George at a lock in Weybridge. He’s holding a large object.
‘What’s that?’ said Harris. ‘A frying pan?’ ‘No,’ said George, with a strange, wild look in his eyes; ‘they are all the rage this season; everybody has got them up the river. It’s a banjo. ‘I never knew you played the banjo!’ cried Harris and I, in one breath. ‘Not exactly,’ replied George: ‘but it’s very easy, they tell me; and I’ve got the instruction book!’
One evening, to the horror of the other two, George threatens to play his new instrument.
George got out his banjo after supper, and wanted to play it, but Harris objected: he said he had got a headache, and did not feel strong enough to stand it. George thought the music might do him good – said music often soothed the nerves and took away a headache; and he twanged two or three notes, just to show Harris what it was like. Harris said he would rather have the headache.
The book is full of such moments. If you’ve read it, do you remember the description of Uncle Podger putting up a picture, the frustrated attempts to open a tin of pineapple chunks, the fierce arguments with other boaters? Alongside the comedy Three Men in a Boat contains some lovely lyrical passages about the river. There are lots of facts too, perhaps derived from J’s original plan for the book, which was simply a history of the Thames. As the three men either row or tow their boat upriver, there are digressions on Magna Carta, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Hampton Court, the Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey and plenty of scintillating detail about pubs along the route, many of which are still there. In fact you could use the book as a guidebook and companion on a river trip today. And why not stay at the Barley Mow at Clifton Hampden, as Jerome recommends? ‘It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river.’ In its romantic medievalism, parts of Three Men in a Boat recall that other radical river-based novel of the late nineteenth century, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, published in 1890. To both men the river symbolized a more harmonious society. As the friends row or pull their boat from Chertsey to Windsor to Reading to Abingdon, Jerome also inserts some pretty scathing social commentary, and it’s for this as well as the raw laughs that it’s worth revisiting this nineteenth-century bestseller. In his 1924 memoir, Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote for Jerome’s magazine The Idler, praised Three Men in a Boat, saying, ‘It has all the exuberance and joy of life which youth brings with it.’ But he also noted that ‘Jerome is a man who, like most humorists, has a very serious side to his character . . . he was inclined to be hotheaded and intolerant in political matters, from pure earnestness of purpose, which alienated some of his friends.’ Examples of this can be found in Three Men in a Boat. For one thing, Jerome was fiercely opposed to the way landowners put up ‘Keep Out’ signs all along the river.
The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether. They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those noticeboards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone. I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should slaughter the whole family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered: ‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’
Work and its avoidance is also a theme of Three Men in a Boat: ‘It seemed to me,’ observes J, ‘that I was doing more than my fair share of work on this trip . . . It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.’ In one digression he remembers reading a ‘liver-pill circular’ that describes the symptoms of liver failure. One of them he certainly had: ‘a disinclination towards work of any kind’. Jerome was a democrat in the sense that he wanted everyone to enjoy the high life. Literacy had increased enormously since the 1870 Education Act which had created a voracious reading public. In a manifesto for his Idler magazine, founded in 1892, he wrote that the plan was ‘to appeal to that growing public which possesses literary tastes and artistic sympathies. I wish to make it a magazine that will be almost a need to thinking men and women.’ His radicalism may have resulted from his early poverty. Though he came from a middle-class background, his family never had any money. His father was a failed entrepreneur who died when Jerome was 12, and the boy left school at 14. He got a job as a clerk at Euston Station and two years later became an actor, travelling round the country in rep. He then became a freelance hack and his first, autobiographical, book, On the Stage – and Off, was published in 1885. As well as The Idler, he founded a periodical called To-Day. However, in Private Eye-style he found himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. His paper had, perhaps hotheadedly, accused one Samson Fox – great-grandfather of the actors Edward and James Fox and an extremely wealthy industrialist of the time (think Elon Musk) – of misleading investors. Jerome found himself liable for legal costs of £9,000 (about £900,000 in today’s money). He was declared bankrupt and had to sell both magazines to his friend and co-editor Robert Barr, though he continued to contribute to and help edit them. Like Diogenes and John Lennon, in Three Men in a Boat Jerome preaches simplicity as the path to a happy life. He bemoans the materialism and obsession with status of his day:
How [people] pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them . . . with the dread of what my neighbours will think, with luxuries that only cloy . . . throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed only with what you need!
Yes, he says, only partly ironically, lighten the load. ‘You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine.’ And what a wonderful finale it is when the men abandon the boat trip four days early, just beyond Oxford, and scoot back to London for a slap-up meal. It’s so familiar, that sense of the joy of luxury after a period of ascetic living. ‘[T]he odour of Burgundy, and the smell of French sauces, and the sight of clean napkins and long loaves, knocked as a very welcome visitor at the door of our inner man.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Tom Hodgkinson 2024


About the contributor

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of today’s Idler magazine and is the author of several books including How to Be Idle and How to Be Free.

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